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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Energy and Calm: Brain Breaks and Focused-Attention Practices

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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An illustration of a brain in a hammock between 2 palm trees.

When presented with new material, standards, and complicated topics, we need to be focused and calm as we approach our assignments. We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.

Brain Breaks

A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, well-worn roadways. Our brains are wired for novelty because we pay attention to any and every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. This has always been a wonderful advantage because our survival as a species depended on this aspect of brain development.

When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens. Consider trying these with your class:

1. The Junk Bag

I always carry a bag of household objects containing markers, scrap paper, and anything that one would find in a junk drawer -- for example, a can opener or a pair of shoelaces. Pick any object out of the junk bag and ask students to come up with two ways this object could be reinvented for other uses. They can write or draw their responses. Once students have drawn or written about an invention, they can walk the room for one minute sharing and comparing.

2. Squiggle Story

On a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard, or Promethean Board, draw one squiggly line. Give students one minute to stand and draw with their opposite hand, turning the line into a picture or design of their choice.

3. Opposite Sides

Movement is critical to learning. Have students stand and blink with the right eye while snapping the fingers of their left hand. Repeat this with the left eye and right hand. Students could also face one another and tap the right foot once, left foot twice, and right foot three times, building speed they alternate toe tapping with their partner.

4. Symbolic Alphabet

Sing the alphabet with names of objects rather than the letters.

5. Other Languages

Teach sign language or make up a spoken language. In pairs, students take turns speaking or interpreting this new language for 30 seconds each.

6. Mental Math

Give a set of three instructions, counting the sequence to a partner for 30 seconds. Example: Count by two until 20, then count by three until 50, finishing with seven until 80. Switch and give the other partner another set of numbers to count.

7. Invisible Pictures

Have a student draw a picture in the air while their partner guesses what it is. You could give them categories such as foods, places, or other ways to narrow the guessing.

8. Story Starters

A student or teacher begins a story for one minute, either individually or with a partner. The students then complete or continue it with a silly ending.

9. Rock Scissors Paper Math

With the traditional game, the last call-out is "math." With that call, students lay out one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The best of three wins.

Focused-Attention Practices

A focused-attention practice is a brain exercise for quieting the thousands of thoughts that distract and frustrate us each day. When the mind is quiet and focused, we are able to be present with a specific sound, sight, or taste. Research repeatedly shows that quieting our minds ignites our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure while enhancing our coping strategies to effectively handle the day-to-day challenges that keep coming. Our thinking improves and our emotions begin to regulate so that we can approach an experience with variable options.

For the following practices, the goal is to start with 60 to 90 seconds and build to five minutes:

1. Breathing

Use the breath as a focus point. Have students place one hand close to their nose (not touching) and one hand on their belly. As they breathe in, have them feel their bellies expand. As they exhale, they can feel the warm air hit their hand. Students will focus on this breath for only one minute. Let them know that it's OK when thoughts sometimes come into the mind uninvited. Tell them to exhale that thought away.

2. Colors

Visualize colors while focusing on the breath. Inhale a deep green, and exhale a smoky gray. Have the students imagine the colors as swirling and alive with each inhale. If a student is de-escalating from an angry moment, the color red is a great color to exhale.

3. Movement

For younger children, direct students to stand and, as they inhale, lift an arm or leg and wiggle it, exhaling it back to its original position. For younger grades beginning these focused-attention practices, it's good to include an inhale and exhale with any type of movement.

4. The Deep-Dive Breath

We inhale for four counts, hold for four, and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once the students find the rhythm of the exercise.

5. Energizing Breath

We pant like a dog with our mouths open and our tongues out for 30 seconds, continuing for another 30 seconds with our mouths closed as we take short belly breaths with one hand on the belly. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second. After a full minute, the students return to four regular deep inhales and exhales.

6. Sound

The use of sound is very powerful for engaging a calm response. In the three classrooms where I teach, we use rain sticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are many websites that provide music for focus, relaxation and visualization. Here is one of my favorites.

7. Rise and Fall

As we breathe in and out through our noses, we can lie on the floor and place an object on our stomachs, enhancing our focus by watching the rising and falling of our bellies.

When we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and choices, we have a much greater opportunity to change those thoughts and feelings that are not serving us well in life and in school. When we grasp this awareness, we see and feel the difference!

How do you stimulate or quiet your students?

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Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

The high school students love most of these!!! The junk drawer, the writing in the air, opposite movements, and the focused attention practices with visualizing your inhale and exhale are great too!!

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

Karen, The high school students love these!!! And they love choice... it empowers them, so you might want to give them two options... they love the alphabet with words!

Aaron Hogan's picture
Aaron Hogan
High school assistant principal, learner, questioner

Give each one a try and see what takes with each group. It's tough to find much of anything that will work for a whole high school of students.

We used this video (the same one linked above if you've already checked it out) with students at our high school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e0uAJs64X8

We also have videos available that are decent brain breaks for students: http://successamchs.weebly.com/brain-breaks.html

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

These are great videos Aaron, I learned lots from the first one. How would you use the second link? would they watch these videos during class time?

Aaron Hogan's picture
Aaron Hogan
High school assistant principal, learner, questioner

I can't find the original source (I'll keep looking), but the first videos that populated this list were from an article in brain breaks at TED talks. I thought it made a lot of sense that an audience would need a break during an experience like a live TED event.

I encouraged students to use these videos as a distraction, a way to reset their minds a bit, during long study breaks. I think they work best in tandem with many of the strategies presented by Desautels in this article.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Really like this idea, to use videos as a distraction, I find I do that a lot too after working, I take a break to watch a couple of short videos. They really do work as great brain breaks. Thanks Aaron!

Christi's picture

This gives me more wonderful ideas to use with my awesome first graders. I have found that brain breaks make a true difference in the classroom.

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